The River

Jonathan Hanson

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On February 4, a team comprising explorers and kayakers from seven nations began a planned two-month-long expedition through the Tsangpo Gorge in southeastern Tibet. Their goal is to chart some of the still unvisited parts of the gorge and to complete the first-ever whitewater descent of the world’s deepest river canyon.

The Yarlung Tsangpo River—the highest river in the world, with an average elevation of over 13,000 feet—was flowing before the Himalayas were born. But when the Indian subcontinent slammed into Asia and began crumpling and lifting billions of tons of ocean sediment, the resulting 1,500-mile-long mountain range forced a radical realignment of the river’s course. (There is even evidence that it once flowed in the opposite direction.) Thus for the first half of its 1,800-mile-length, the Tsangpo runs east through Tibet along the northern slope of the Himalayas, then takes an abrupt hairpin turn near their eastern edge and flows south and then west into India (where it is called the Brahmaputra) and then south again to its mouth in Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal.

The exploration of that turn, a mere comma on most maps, has stymied adventurers and geographers for centuries. Just downstream of the village of Gyala, the Tsangpo roars into a 16,000-foot-cleft between two peaks, Namcha Barwa (25,446 feet) and Gyala Pelri (23,901 feet), whose summits are separated by only 13 miles. Within the 150-mile gorge these last sentinels of the Himalayas squeeze the river like a vice, forcing it through passages where cliffs plunge hundreds of feet straight into the water. Access to the river is impossible in many places, and travel away from it hampered by vertiginous terrain and numerous glaciers. In fact, through the 1800s it wasn’t known for certain if the river that emerged from the southern flank of the Himalayas was the same one that entered on the north. Adding to the mystery were two seemingly irreconcilable observations: Where the Tsangpo accelerates into its gorge the elevation is just over 9,000 feet. Where it exits, flowing in exactly the opposite direction, the elevation is under 1,000 feet. Within the inaccessible, twisted confines of that unmapped stretch the river, if one river it was, somehow dropped the better part of two vertical miles.

In the 1870s, British colonial officials in India, blocked from the lower end of the gorge by the fiercely protective Abor and Mishmi tribes and from the upper by Tibet’s closed border, resorted to undercover forays employing Tibetan-speaking Indians to survey the gorge and prove a connection between the Tsangpo and Brahmaputra. Speculation as to the fantastic elevation discrepancy centered on a waterfall of unimaginable proportions, a fantasy emboldened by the 1884 report of a 150-foot cataract below a remote monastery called Pemaköchung by the most persistent of her Majesty’s agents, a tailor from Sikkim named Kintup. (Kintup had actually correctly reported it as 30 feet high, but a mistake in translation perpetrated the error.) Kintup had also been entrusted with an outlandish plan to launch 500 marked logs through the gorge, a mission he completed after a mishap-plagued journey. But the logs bobbed unnoticed all the way to the Indian Ocean when his message back to headquarters went astray and no observers were stationed on the lower river.

In 1913, after the Tibetan border was opened to travelers, British officers Frederick Bailey and Henry Morshead completed an exhausting journey up the gorge, following the river where possible but detouring around several significant stretches. In 1924, the English botanist and explorer Frank Kingdon Ward led an 11-month expedition into the gorge, resulting in the most thorough survey to that date. In addition to charting the astounding plant diversity within the gorge, Ward discovered 70-foot Rainbow Falls and reduced the unexplored part of the river to one narrow, raging section perhaps ten miles long (Ward’s 1926 Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges was recently reprinted with contributions by modern explorers).

By now it was clear that the Tsangpo’s precipitous descent was not the result of one massive cascade, but instead a near-continuous succession of violent rapids, which tumbled room-sized boulders like gravel and pushed up standing waves 20 feet high. For the next 70 years the Tsangpo Gorge attracted little attention from explorers, though its secret depths and lost monasteries provided the inspiration for James Hilton’s 1935 novel, Lost Horizon. In the 1990s there was a resurgence of interest from two sources—scientists and whitewater paddlers. The incredible biological and geologic richness of the gorge had yet to be fully interpreted—and the hidden river itself had yet to be descended. In a flurry of activity, separate groups from China and America began making new discoveries. In the fall of 1998 a National Geographic Society-sponsored expedition attempted to paddle the inner gorge, only to meet tragedy when one of its members, Doug Gordon, was lost in a massive rapid only ten days into the descent.

The 2002 Outside Tsangpo Expedition hopes to open a new chapter in the exploration of the legendary Tsangpo Gorge.